Friday, February 08, 2008

Send A Letter

King’s College
14 March 1938

Dear Wittgenstein,

Before trying to discuss, probably in a confused way, I want to give a clear answer to your question. If as you say it is of “vital importance” for you to be able to leave Austria and return to England, there is no doubt – you must not go to Vienna. Whether you are a lecturer at Cambridge or not, now you would not be let out: the frontier of Austria is closed to the exit of Austrians. No doubt these restrictions will have been somewhat relaxed in a month’s time. But there will be no certainty for a long time that you will be allowed to go out, and I think a considerable chance of your not being allowed out for some time. You are aware no doubt that are now a German citizen. Your Austrian passport will certainly be withdrawn and then you will have to apply for a German passport, which may be granted if and when the Gestapo is satisfied that you deserve it.

As to the possibility of war, I do not know: it may happen at any moment, or we may have one or two more years of “peace”. I really have no idea. But I should not gamble on the likelihood of six months’ peace.

If however you decided in spite of all to go back to Vienna, I think: a) it would certainly increase your chance of being allowed out of Austria if you were a lecturer in Cambridge; b) there would be no difficulty in your entering England, once you are let out of Austria (of Germany, I should say); c) before leaving Ireland or England you should have your passport changed with a German one, at a German consulate: I suppose they will begin to do so in a very short time; and you are more likely to get the exchange effected here than in Vienna; and, if you go with a German passport, you are more likely (though not at all certain) to be let out again.

You must be careful, I think, about various things: 1) if you go to Austria, you must have made up your mind not to say that you are of Jewish descent, or they are sure to refuse you a passport; 2) you must not say that you have money in England, for when you are there they could compel you to hand it over to the Reichsbank; 3) if you are approached, in Dublin or Cambridge, by the German Consulate, for registration, or change of passport, be careful how you answer, for a rash word might prevent you ever going back to Vienna; 4) take care how you write home, stick to purely personal affairs, for letters are certainly censored.

If you have made up your mind, you should apply at once for Irish citizenship – perhaps your period of residence in England will be counted for that purpose: do it before your Austrian passport is taken away from you, it is probably easier as an Austrian than as a German.

In the present circumstances I should not have qualms about British nationality if that is the only one which you can acquire without waiting for another ten years’ residence: also you have friends in England who could help you to get it: certainly a Cambridge job would enable you to get it quickly.

I shall be in Cambridge till Friday: afterwards letters will be forwarded to me in Italy, so take care what you say, that you may be writing for the Italian censor.

My telephone is 3675: you will find me available before noon and in the evening after 10.

Piero Sraffa

Excuse this confused letter.


Praxis said...

Thanks for posting this - it's been on my mind lately, and I can't find my edition of Wittgenstein's letters. If I remember right, this is the only correspondence between Wittgenstein and Sraffa that survives. (?) I find their friendship fascinating. Sraffian that you are, you of course know that Wittgenstein credited Sraffa as the stimulus behind the most significant ideas in the 'Investigations'. That's a pretty extraordinary acknowledgement - given that the 'Investigations' is one of the greatest works of philosophy of the twentieth century, and that Wittgenstein was always very miserly with his praise. Plus W was a notoriously hard man to get along with - but he and Sraffa had an intense intellectual friendship lasting years. It's all very interesting - and, unfortunately, lost to posterity. But you know all this.

Anyway, if I remember right, Ray Monk, in his biography of Wittgenstein, says of the letter's last sentence something along the lines of: this forces one to wonder what heights of lucidity Sraffa reached in the rest of his correspondence.

Love the blog.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the compliment.

This is apparently the only letter from Sraffa to Wittgenstein that survives. I downloaded it from Google books. I did not read the remainder of the Wittgenstein correspondence in that book.

I've previously echoed Norman Malcolm's account of how Sraffa came to convince Wittgenstein to change his mind.

I've read some papers attempting to relate Sraffa's economics to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. Such work strikes me as speculative.

I've added your blog to my blogroll.

praxis said...

Thanks for the link!

I dug out the Monk biography of Wittgenstein. Upon receiving this letter Wittgenstein travelled to Cambridge (from Dublin) to meet with Sraffa. On March 18th he noted in his diary:

"Sraffa advised me yesterday that I should, for the time being, not go to Vienna under any circumstances, for I could not now help my people and in all probability would not be allowed to leave Austria. I am not fully clear what I should do, but, for the time being, I think Sraffa is right."

Wittgenstein then wrote to Keynes, asking for help in obtaining a Cambridge job and British citizenship. Keynes apparently assisted: Wittgenstein quickly received a lectureship, and obtained a British passport in June 1939. In July he travelled to Berlin and Vienna, where he and his sister (eventually) negotiated his family's exemption from the Nuremberg laws - at the cost of much of the family wealth.

On the intellectual side of things: I'd read the Norman Malcolm anecdote... It's a compelling 'primal scene' for the creation of Wittgenstein's later philosophy - but clearly doesn't convey the intellectual relationship between the two men. According to Monk, "Wittgenstein once remarked to Rush Rhees that the most important thing he gained from talking to Sraffa was an 'anthropological' way of looking at philosophical problems."

That's pretty elliptical; but I wonder whether Sraffa's engagement with Marx was a factor here. I'm sure it's been said before - but there's no better summary of the later Wittgenstein's philosophical perspective than the following: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." The movement from the early to the late Wittgenstein could be seen as a movement from the former perspective to the latter. Perhaps that's one area in which the influence of Sraffa was important.

But as you say, all suggestions of this kind are highly speculative.